Today, when scanning headlines, a specimen like “Nancy Pelosi Torches Donald Trump’s New Immigration Plan With Melania Trump Dig” hardly goes amiss (yes, that’s real, from HuffPost). People are “slamming,” “digging” at, and “torching” each other to their hearts’ delight, and the funny thing is that news about people’s expressed opinions these days seems to be more newsworthy than, well… the actual news—like the fact-based kind they taught you in school, the who, what, where, when, and why.
And lest you think that’s just my opinion, I can provide you with some recent research showing that the trend toward subjective and heavily partisan reporting is, as they say, “a real thing.” At least, in online, broadcast, and cable news.
The global policy nonprofit RAND published a report in which they used a machine learning program to analyze the type of language used, tone of voice, and relative subjectivity of different types of news over the last three decades. Their findings probably won’t surprise you—even though I think it is shocking when looking at the entire picture.
Newspapers have stayed the most consistent, changing little since the 1980’s. The only difference is a greater emphasis on character and storytelling, showing the increasing influence of narrative journalism.1
Broadcast and definitely cable television news demonstrated a sizable shift away from “academic language,” “complex reasoning,” and a tendency to be “precise.” Now, it seems, these programs are all about “conversations,” whether that’s the conversation between hosts, conversations with program guests, or even conversations between the newscasters and the audience. The tone, therefore, tends to be much more subjective and personal, and newscasters are “more dogmatic” in being for or against specific positions.2 This being positioned as “news” is a dangerous use of “PR.”
Online news, as it has developed, has trended in a similar way. According to RAND, online journalism “remains heavily anchored in key policy and social issues but… reports on these issues through personal frames and experiences.”3 The implicit and increasingly entrenched understanding is that it’s not the data or facts about a situation, but people’s lived experiences that count – it’s how these issues make us feel. For you folks that don’t know—PR is about generating FEELINGS to induce people to ACT. This again, is a dangerous use of “PR,” enticing people with negative feelings to cause them to re-act.
And when “the news” is how so-and-so feels about what, where does that leave us as a nation? Poorly informed, that’s for damn certain. It’s not just the politicians, policy wonks, celebrities, etc. who are slinging bitterness back and forth – it’s actually the media which is now fueled by the bitterness and gives it energy to continue.
So much for Journalism 101—especially these three points:
- Be Objective –journalism should be void of opinion.
- Offer Balance –there is more than one side to a story. Go to great lengths to get information from all sides.
- Avoid Conflicts of Interest –don’t write about something because you like it. This works in the blogosphere, but not for traditional journalism. If you have a close tie to the source or organization in your story, let your audience know.4
Cooler heads can’t prevail if there’s no incentive to do so… and that’s why “conversational news” is today’s first big #PRFAIL.
Owen, Laura Hazard. “U.S. Journalism Really Has Become More Subjective and Personal – at Least Some of It.” Nieman Lab, 14 May 2019, www.niemanlab.org/2019/05/u-s-journalism-really-has-become-more-subjective-and-personal-at-least-some-of-it/.
Porter, Jeremy. “Journalism 101: 16 Things You Learn In J-School.” Journalistics, 8 Apr. 2018, log.journalistics.com/journalism_101_16_things_you_learn_in_j_school/.